In his new budget, Obama kicks the can one more time

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, February 15, 2011;

Our leaders are so good at kicking the can that it's almost uncanny.

"The way we've dealt with it for most of the last decade," White House budget director Jack Lew said Monday afternoon as he laid out President Obama's new budget, "is simply to put the expense on our national credit card and to kick the can down the road. Well, this budget says we can't do that anymore."

In case you didn't notice, that was a canned line.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke delivered his version of it to Congress last week in testimony about the debt crisis: "There is only so far that we can kick the can down the road. We have to address this, and the sooner we do it, the less painful it will be."

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) recited it, too, in the Republicans' weekly radio address over the weekend: "Our massive debt must be confronted immediately. America cannot afford to kick this can down the road any longer."

The president's own fiscal commission, in its December report, endorsed the words of commission member Tom Coburn, a Republican senator from Oklahoma: "We keep kicking the can down the road and splashing the soup all over our grandchildren."

At least a dozen other lawmakers over the last couple of weeks warned that cans can no longer be kicked. And now, as the president's budget director says, the era of can-kicking is over. With the release of Obama's budget proposal, Washington's budgeting style can instead be described as tiptoeing past the can and hoping nobody notices.

Obama's budget proposal is a remarkably weak and timid document. He proposes to cut only $1.1 trillion from federal deficits over the next decade - a pittance when you consider that the deficit this year alone is in the neighborhood of $1.5 trillion. The president makes no serious attempt at cutting entitlement programs that threaten to drive the government into insolvency.

Contrast that with the proposal by the heads of Obama's fiscal commission, who outlined a way to cut $4 trillion from deficits through 2020, rein in entitlement spending, overhaul the tax code and reduce the government's debt load. As commission co-chair Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff in Bill Clinton's White House, told The Post's Lori Montgomery, Obama's budget is "nowhere near where they will have to go to resolve our fiscal nightmare."

The best explanation the White House has come up with, uttered privately, is that Obama didn't want to step out too far with politically unpopular cuts before congressional Republicans propose their own. And it's true that Republicans haven't yet committed to including entitlement reforms in their own 2012 budget. But even that doesn't justify Obama's feeble budget document, which squanders the little momentum built up by the fiscal commission.

As administration officials came out to defend the indefensible budget Monday, they had little to work with beyond cliches.

"The budget that we sent to Congress today is a responsible plan that shows that we can live within our means and we can also invest in the future," Lew began.

"Now, this is a budget that lives within our means so that we can target critical areas where we need to invest in the future," he said moments later.

"In short," he concluded, "it's a program that we - where we will live within our means and still invest in the future."

A questioner asked Lew why he went after "relatively small programs" for cuts.

The director repeated that "we're going to have to make tough tradeoffs to live within our means and invest in the future."

Obama's chief economist, Austan Goolsbee, preceded Lew to the stage to explain the rosy economic assumptions the White House is relying on to hit even its modest deficit reductions over the medium term. "It's within the so-called central tendency that comes out of the Fed FOMC forecast," he reasoned. "It is rather in the center of that central tendency."

Goolsbee shrewdly got off the stage and left the job of defending the budget to the budget director, who outlined some meager reductions such as "cutting the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative by $125 million."

Reuters's Caren Bohan asked whether a "political calculation" had made the White House disregard the fiscal commission's recommendation.

"I think the commission did something very important: It put on the table a lot of ideas, brought some degree of bipartisan consensus," Lew said.

With the Obama budget, even that small degree of consensus will probably get the boot. "We are not interested in punting," the House Republicans' budget writer, Paul Ryan, said after the Obama plan was released. "This budget is a punting budget."

Is punting better or worse than kicking the can?

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